Catherine Davis and some of the teens from the Young Entrepreneurs Alliance, from left, Malcolm Smith, William Finizia, Jesse Beaverson and R.J. Brennan. © Mark Morelli

How I became an enzyme

"Be an enzyme—a catalyst for change" was the advice Pam and Pierre Omidyar gave to the Class of 2002 at our graduation last May. As I listened, I wondered how they could know my life's aim. They had looked out over the crowd and spoken what was in my heart.

My family instilled in me a deep sense of responsibility for giving back to the community. So, I decided to take a year off before graduate school to work with a nonprofit, human service organization. I wanted to spend a year "helping people." Still, while I was sure of my decision, I felt conflicted in my job search. I couldn't imagine how I could be of service and use the writing and analytic skills I just spent four years developing in philosophy and English classes. After all, who would want to hear the opinion of a 21 year–old kid? Mercifully, I was wrong.

In April 2002, I attended the Tufts nonprofit career fair on a mission for employment. As I walked through the fair, introducing myself to HR representatives and passing out my resume, my future shifted from uncertain to bleak. These nonprofits were looking for child development, psychology or environmental engineering majors. I don't think I've ever received more polite smiles from people who looked over my shoulder to see who was next in line.

A perfect fit
Then, in the back row, I came across the Young Entrepreneurs Alliance (YEA). My heart leapt when I saw their sign. They needed a development intern—someone young, untried, who loved to write and wanted to work with teens. It was perfect, and so was I. I'd be challenged, stimulated and still helping people. In fact, I'd be helping people I had experience with. Only two years ago, I was still a teen.

So, I waited in line to introduce myself and found I was talking, not with an HR representative, but with Julie Nessen, the executive director herself. Before I was quite sure what had happened, I had a job interview. As I walked home, I realized I didn't know if the job was for a year, was full time, or if I would be paid. (I am.) Frankly, I was too excited about the opportunity to care.

Well, I got the job, and from the first hour, it was obvious that YEA was not a run-of-the-mill nonprofit, and my time at YEA would not be typical. YEA is a small nonprofit in Maynard, Mass., that provides ownership training and business skills to youth who exhibit risky behavior that could lead to substance abuse, trouble with the law, suicide, dropping out of school or pregnancy. YEA works with 50 to 100 teens, most between the ages of 15 and 19, each year. Most of them live in the Metrowest communities outside of Boston.

Giving and receiving
The mission of YEA is to provide underprivileged teens with the opportunity to attain long-term economic independence by teaching them about entrepreneurship. YEA has created a business ownership program that teaches teens how to own and operate their own businesses. The program is a balance of paid, hands-on work and weekly training workshops. The teens are partners in a handyman/woman business they created that offers services, including housework, hauling, landscaping, light carpentry, general maintenance, house cleaning, painting and moving. YEA takes the skills these young people do have and teaches them how to transform labor-intensive, unskilled work into a skilled business.

From my first day, it was clear that this organization had as much to give to me as I had to give to it. YEA views everyone as a learner—that includes the staff as much as the teens. Nessen has always developed work for me based as much on what I will learn and accomplish as what I will contribute to the organization. With every task, I am learning new skills, improving the skills I do have and building my portfolio. Sometimes I wonder if YEA is helping me more than I am helping YEA. Then, I sit back and see that everything I've done has made the organization stronger. Working here has not been a year off from school; my education has merely changed settings.

Perhaps the biggest difference between school and work is that my YEA education has been anything but passive. While I was an active student at Tufts, I knew I could sit back on days I just didn't feel like participating. When I sat down to my first staff meeting, I was quite surprised when Nessen sought out my opinions on YEA's partners, programs and policies. My shock continued when some of my ideas were immediately incorporated into the changes made at the meeting. The experience made me realize I was important to YEA, and that made YEA important to me.

The Tufts connection
It turns out that Tufts has a larger hand in this than I realized. At that first staff meeting, in one of those it's-a-small-world moments, I met the irrepressible Dave Lendler, another recent Tufts graduate. In a company with only four staff positions, half of the YEA personnel are Tufts alumni. Lendler graduated from Tufts in 1999 with a degree in computer engineering. Last May, he broke away from the world of technology to join YEA as youth supervisor, a position that couldn't be farther from computer engineering.

To look at him, you have to use your imagination to conjure up the image of Lendler as a software programmer. He has a deep tan, dirt under his fingernails, calluses on his hands and paint-splattered clothes. And Lendler is great at what he does. He has a natural talent for working with teenagers and is deeply committed to these kids. When I talk to the partners about Lendler, kids who pride themselves on false apathy, they drop the attitude and are openly adoring of Dave. And in YEA style, Lendler shares a respect with these teens that comes from working side by side in a labor-intensive job day after day.

YEA's connection with Tufts became even stronger when Chris Pape, a third Tufts graduate, became a part of YEA. At 25, Pape is the owner of a successful Internet start-up company, Digital Bungalow. He is volunteering his time to work with teens enrolled in a digital media studies program. Pape is helping teens barely eight years younger than he is to develop their design talent, find internships and part-time jobs. Again, the teens love him, seeing him as both a role model and a mentor—but not one of those "old guys in their 30s."

And as the months have gone by, I have become a mentor to the YEA partners. Every time the teens are in the office, I teach them something about the business. They've learned how to print checks, enter timesheets, send invoices and make marketing phone calls. You don't need to inundate a teen with hours of information and lessons. In ten minutes, you can teach something they'll never forget and can use in their work and personal lives.

But back to being an enzyme. After all, this year was not supposed to be about helping me. I am supposed to be helping people, which I've learned isn't an easy job. It can be difficult to see the impact we are making. Teens have bad days, and we can't always tell if we are getting through to them. So this has been my next lesson—be patient.

A shining moment
One night last October revealed just how strong an impact YEA is making on our teens. Thanks to funding from the Greeley Foundation, YEA held an "Entrepreneurs Evening" at the home of State Rep. Cory Atkins. It was a chance for our partners to meet with local entrepreneurs and talk with them about their businesses, how they became successful and the possibilities of future internships. We had been grooming the teens for weeks in preparation for the event. We had workshops on social skills where they learned everything from how to shake hands and make eye contact to the right way to end a conversation and move on. We had the partners prepare questions to ask the entrepreneurs as well as answers to questions they thought the entrepreneurs might ask them.

On the night of the party, the teens shined. They were as professional as the adults, and they were genuinely excited. The evening gave them hope. They left energized about taking their first professional steps, no matter how small. Some of our teens, who were high school dropouts, went back to school. Some started researching college. The night was an undeniable confirmation that YEA helps the teens it works with. And I am a part of that. Each and every day.

Catherine Davis will end her "enzyme year" with the Young Entrepreneurs Alliance this summer and plans to attend law school this fall.